Ravin Pierre is a long shot. He would say so himself. But if 30-year incumbent Senator Patty Murray or her Republican challenger, Tiffany Smiley (“I just call her Karen,” Pierre said) adopted his simple three-point platform, he’d bow out of the race, no questions asked. Those three points include preventing QAnoners from trying to overthrow democracy again, making the office more transparent by wearing a body camera at both public and private meetings, and enforcing two-term limits by threat of jail.
Although his website says “Fuck Patty Murray,” Pierre doesn’t hate Washington’s “mom in tennis shoes.” As far as ridiculously powerful politicians go, Murray’s not that bad. But no single person should wield such power for so long, Pierre said.
“She's probably the most progressive voter of the Senate, but come on. Five terms is enough. She's been my senator since I was in middle school,” Pierre said. “I think democracy is an experiment. You gotta get experimental.”
Pierre’s not the only one who wants to dust off the shelf over in D.C. Progressives, socialists, and many other flavors of lefty are challenging Washington’s Democratic incumbents for a chance to bring a fresh, new perspective to the halls of Congress.
We’ve seen socialists run for and win seats in Congress before, but with a looming red wave driving anxious Pelosi-types to beg for votes in relentless campaign emails, challenging from the left comes with a whole host of criticism, both from the establishment and from skeptics of electoralism within the very movement these candidates wish to draw power from.
You Can’t Sit With Us
This election, socialist and progressive challengers in Washington have raised more money than they have in recent history.
In Washington’s 9th Congressional District, which covers Bellevue and South King County, teacher and union leader Stephanie Gallardo has already out-fundraised Rep. Adam Smith’s last lefty challenger by $50,000. Up in Washington’s 2nd Congressional District, which covers the northwest corner of the state, teacher and progressive activist Jason Call, who is squaring up with Rep. Rick Larsen again, has raised more than triple the amount he did back when he ran in the last cycle.
But even as financial support grows for new leadership, some argue that Congressional candidates who have never held office and don’t know where the bathroom is in the House of Representatives do not have the experience necessary to lead.
Progressives with Congressional aspirations say they're often advised to build that experience by running for a lower legislative office, such as city council. But that advice doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for Rebecca Parson, who is running for the second time against incumbent Rep. Derek Kilmer for the 6th Congressional District, which covers Tacoma and the peninsula.
City council is a great place to create important local policy around zoning and policing, but if you want to address climate change, like Parson does, she said you need a national seat. Similarly, Gallardo, who is passionate about bringing an internationalist perspective to U.S. foreign policy and immigration, doesn’t think she could really hone in on those issues at City Hall or in Olympia.
But that lack of legislative experience tends to raise eyebrows. Hell, the Stranger Election Control Board used lack of experience as one argument against voting for Gallardo this year. (I asked the SECB for a statement. I responded and said, “Fuck off.”) Gallardo said she hears arguments against her based on her “greeness” from endorsement bodies all the time. She said she also hears these arguments from the Democratic Party. A spokesperson from the state party didn’t get back to me before deadline, but I'll update.
Both Gallardo and Call said lack of experience does not seem to sway the voters they speak to when they knock doors.
“It’s just another way for the establishment to gatekeep,” he said.
He believes the concern is disingenuously leveraged against working-class progressives because, for instance, Rep. Suzan DelBene came into Congress without any legislative experience. She beat Republican State House Rep. John Koster as a Microsoft executive. Rep. Kim Schrier unseated Republican Rep. David Reichert as a physician.
“The Democrats look at wealthy people and people in positions of power as having more standing. That is exactly why we end up with a bunch of lawyers and lobbyists and executives in Congress, as opposed to working-class people,” Call said.
The argument for experience would re-elect incumbents or insiders for open seats in perpetuity. But the challengers argue they have plenty of relevant experience in community organizing and in their respective professions to even out the playing field.
It's Just Not the Right Time
But some fear for the fate of the Congressional majority in midterm elections. With Democrats coming home to their districts with less than one might hope for under a nominal Democratic majority, and with structural forces working against them on top of that, Republicans will have a very good chance at winning back control of the House this year.
These conditions present two paths forward for Washington’s liberal voters: Vote for incumbents to maintain the status quo in what could be a very hostile legislative body, or vote out the incumbents that got the country to this point in the first place.
While the progressives all acknowledged the very real possibility of a “red wave” washing over the country, they took issue with the conclusion that we should re-elect Democrats because of it.
“The ‘red wave’ sells Democrats with the threat of you losing your rights. When the reality is that Democrats could have been taking care of this shit for the past 50 fucking years and have not done a goddamn thing,” Gallardo said.
The challengers want to sell us on bold ideas. Parson wants a Green New Deal. Call wants Medicare For All. Gallardo wants a new Constitution. Pierre wants to put his meetings with lobbyists on OnlyFans, for Christ’s sake.
$30 is the bare minimum in every county in the US for an adult with a kid to afford housing, food, healthcare, basic necessities. No vacations, no eating out. Those are the facts and no amount of praying to Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman will change that.— Rebecca Parson for Congress, WA-06 (@RebeccaforWA) May 20, 2022
Are They All Talk?
But even if the candidates can energize voters by offering an alternative in the face of a red wave, could they actually get any of their policy ideas signed by President Joe Biden? After all, they wouldn’t want to make a bunch of empty promises to disillusioned lefties who have their black bloc hanging in the closet.
When a newly elected Congressperson enters the U.S. House of Representatives, they get one vote in a body of 435 and little seniority, which historically means little bargaining power. In the 115th Congress, only 13 freshmen got at least one bill enacted, and each proposed an average of 14 bills. Two of those freshmen managed to get two bills enacted, but they proposed 19 and 27 bills, respectively, in the process.
The progressive challengers in Washington hesitated at the question of whether their candidacy could actually take policy across the finish line.
“I can't answer that question,” Call said. “What I do know is that I am going to continue to push and keep things on the table and do everything I can.”
To be fair, it's hard to get legislation passed even as a more senior member of the House. Smith has only prime-sponsored six enacted bills since he took office in 1997. Larsen also only gets primary sponsorship credit for six enacted bills since he took office in 2001. Kilmer can claim five enacted bills in his decade in Congress. But Murray, who enjoys more power in the Senate, has prime-sponsored 34 bills that have been enacted into law.
Even though the lefties can’t offer the voters guaranteed policy wins, voters should not wait until there are enough left-wing candidates to easily pass legislation before they elect left-wing candidates, Parson said.
She imagined herself, Call, Gallardo, and other like-minded members of Congress forming a small but highly principled caucus to the left of the so-called "Congressional Progressive Caucus" that could insert good amendments into legislation. Creating a hardcore group in Congress is not exactly unprecedented. The right’s version of this is called the Freedom Caucus, and last year the Congressional Progressive Caucus used their numbers to tie the infrastructure package to the social spending package–for a while, at least.
Even if they can’t get universal health care or a Green New Deal passed as a freshman in Congress, Gallardo said she plans to use other tactics to win policy. For example, as a freshman, Rep. Cori Bush slept outside the Capitol to protest evictions after Congress went on recess without addressing the lapsed federal eviction moratorium. Bush’s action got media attention and pressured the White House to put a pause on evictions.
Parson added that being in a high office puts lefties in a more visible position to promote their policies to the masses, even without concrete policy wins. As just a candidate, Parson’s platform has landed her primetime exposure on FOX News and Newsmax to defend socialist ideas. She said she can only imagine her reach if she actually won the office.
Progressives have pushed the discourse left before. During both of his presidential campaigns, Senator Bernie Sanders’s Democratic Socialist agenda changed the nation’s conversation. According to Truthout, from January through March of 2016, The New York Times published 41 articles that referenced “single-payer.” In the decade prior, the Times only published on average 16 articles that made the same reference during that same time frame. Sanders helped get the paper of record to write about single-payer healthcare over 2.5 times as often. Similar increases occurred for terms like “inequality,” “Medicare for All,” “tuition-free college,” and “socialism.”
In that same vein, left-wing candidates said they could push the incumbent in their own race to the left. Over the phone, Rep. Smith didn’t give his socialist challengers sole credit for moving him left on any policies, but he did acknowledge that he worked extensively on the issue of affirmative action with Jesse Wineberry, who challenged Smith from the left in 2016. He said he would have probably worked on affirmative action anyway.
Beyond that, Parson and the other challengers said they would like to use their seat to build a national movement, not just try to legislate in the hopeless bureaucracy.
Parson said electeds don’t spark movements by singing “God Bless America” when the Supreme Court takes away human rights (though, granted, that chorus formed to celebrate passage of moderate gun safety legislation, not in response to the death of Roe), but they could mobilize everyday people if they used their massive audience to organize protests and other actions. For example, she could see herself using the office to peacefully shut down a pipeline via direct action rather than legislation.
Why Participate in a Broken System?
But some socialists think we should cut out the middleman: If electing socialists comes back to organizing a movement anyway, then lefties might as well save their money and organize the movement without an election. Most of the arguments concerning the cost-benefit analysis of running for Congress to further the socialist movement happen between DSA-ers after a joint, on Twitter behind cutesy icons, and one time from The Stranger kind of.
While Call argued that progressives might as well use electoral politics as one tactic rather than cede that avenue entirely, that avenue isn’t cheap.
For believers in electoralism, the increased fundraising to left-wingers this year is something worth celebrating. But for those who do not think we can solve the flaws of our system within its walls, that money looks like hundreds of thousands of dollars that could have funded direct action or mutual aid.
So far, Gallardo has raised over $170,000. That money could be someone’s rent. In Seattle, that could be someone’s rent for almost 150 months for a market rate-studio. Sure, paying someone’s rent doesn’t fix the conditions that put people at risk of homelessness, but a failed campaign doesn’t change those conditions, either.
Or at least, a “failed” campaign cannot change those conditions immediately, Call argued. He wouldn’t characterize his last attempt at unseating Larsen as a failure, since he learned how to better campaign for this go-round. He points to Rep. Bush as an example. She ran for her seat three times before she got elected. It cost her supporters over $1.4 million in total.
Gallardo, of all the challengers, seemed the most sympathetic to this concern about the left's finite resources. She said that over the course of her campaign she dove deeper into socialism and became more radicalized. “When it comes to whether or not electing socialists will impact the socialist movement, the jury’s still out,” Gallardo said. “Ultimately, I do know that socialism is in conflict with the current system as it's made.”
Gallardo said she knows she won’t be able to bring about socialism by herself, or even if the voters filled Congress with people like her. Ultimately, she looked to Chile for a path forward.
At the end of 2019, what started as a response to a public transit fare hike escalated to a mass movement. At its peak, over one million Chileans demonstrated in Plaza Italia in the country’s capital. The demonstrators demanded an end to the dictator’s illegitimate Constitution, and they won. In the county’s highest turnout election in nearly a decade, 78% of voters elected to scrap the Constitution and start anew.
Gallardo can’t single-handedly change the Constitution as a member of Congress. But Parson urged the left not to let perfection be the enemy of the good.
“There's a lot of debate on the left about what we should be focusing on, as if we can make decisions based on pros and cons lists or a spreadsheet or something,” Parson said.
Parson argued that the left needs to build workers’ unions, organize our fellow tenants, nurture mutual-aid networks, do direct action, and also probably have a say in what lawmakers do in the halls of power.
“The left seems to think we can ‘logic’ this out and one day everybody just do the right tactic, but you can't make people do something they're not passionate about. They'll just stay home eventually. I think it's really misguided. In all these debates, I would say we should be doing all of it," she said.
On Tuesday, Washingtonians will advance two candidates in every race to the general election. Because Washington has a top-two primary, in many cases, perhaps in these western Washington Congressional Districts, a Democrat will have to face a progressive, or a socialist, or some other kind of lefty in November. With the Democratic establishment and anti-voting factions of the left eager to poke holes in their campaigns, Call, Gallardo, Parson, and Pierre ask for your vote.
To those thinking of voting for the establishment Democrat, the lefties ask voters to take a chance on someone new. As Pierre said, “Get experimental.”
To their own base, the lefties ask that they take a chance, too–take a chance on an old system.